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Sue Carlton: Job or family when a hurricane's coming — a very Florida conundrum

By Sue Carlton
A hurricane helps the rest of us acknowledge the police officers, paramedics, hospital personnel, public works employees and others who stay on the job despite the storm. 

It must seem as foreign to Northerners as shoveling snow is to those of us raised in the Sunshine State: The very-Florida conundrum of having to choose between work and family — between paycheck and personal safety — when a hurricane comes.

This week brought news that four city of Largo employees got canned or resigned after opting to be with loved ones during Hurricane Irma when they were expected to work.

And for a twist on the theme, the leader of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg was ousted after she left the state as the storm loomed and questions were raised about her handling of the campus evacuation.

Yes, I totally get why a loyal, decades-long Largo employee might wonder why he was fired instead of suspended.

But I also appreciate a city that gets its frontline people to sign an agreement acknowledging they are considered emergency responders, and then maintaining a zero-tolerance policy to back that up.

I also get the forcing-out of Sophia Wisniewska. The USFSP regional chancellor headed for Atlanta as the storm was coming and seemed to imply in an email to her boss that she was on campus — down to describing birds all a-chirp. Even after her negotiated post-Irma departure from her $265,000 salary job, she continued to strongly defend how she handled the evacuation and called her judgment sound.

Bottom line: It happened when every local leader's whereabouts was pretty critical.

All of which brought to mind one choice I kind of admired.

Thirteen years ago, with Hurricane Charley threatening, 30-year Largo public works employee James Gesicki spent the day before the storm filling sandbags. But Gesicki, then 61, told his bosses he needed to be with his widowed mother, who was 81 with health problems, for the storm. Which he was. Which got him fired. And also interviewed on CNN.

He told me back then it was tough, but he didn't regret it.

A lot of people don't have to stress over leaving the house, the spouse, the kids and the dog for work during a disaster. Irma at least waited until Sunday with people already off for the weekend. Plenty of businesses and restaurants had the grace to close a day early — instead of staying open to profit off the panicked — so employees could get home, evacuate and/or do whatever needed doing.

But police, paramedics, hospital personnel, public works employees, reporters and plenty of others who would surely rather be hunkered down with their people went to work anyway.

Even if you do not like the particulars of their politics, you also had the steady presence of everyone from Gov. Rick Scott to a whole lot of local officials. (Including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who notably did not flinch when a national reporter called him Mayor Beckhorn.) They were front and center before, during and after a storm that could have been so much worse. Had we taken a direct hit as predicted, that show of leadership would have meant even more. It's pretty much the definition of public service.

If there's anything good about hurricanes (there isn't) maybe it's recognizing people who stick it out for the rest of us.

And, okay, the guy who stayed home for his mom, too.

Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected]